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Social & Political Philosophy

Educational Imperatives

Perhaps the defining characteristic of democracy is its supposed commitment the the provision of equality. By their very nature, human societies are rife with inequality and disadvantage, whether by result of personal inadequacy or a simple roll of the dice. Education, at its heart, is thought to be the remedy to this, the ‘grand equalizer’ that overcomes the misfortunes of birth and gives everyone an equal opportunity to succeed.

While that may summarize our current understanding of education, it was not always thus. The modern idea of ‘public’ education arose, not out of some egalitarian ideal, but out of the elitist ideals of the Enlightenment. Common people, so the argument went, were uncivilized, ignorant, unwashed savages, and needed to be instructed to become civilized and ‘proper’ members of society. It was not so much about a belief that education was the key to equality as it was that education was the key to civilization; more accurately, it was the belief that education was a way to bring the clearly much more enlightened and worthy views of the philosophes to the masses.

So we see that education was, in a way, a form of social control – plain and simple, it was an excuse for the elites to impose their worldviews on the common people and to achieve their own goals. As public education was just beginning, the masses weren’t necessarily taught the same things rich people might have learned in their own schools – governments, once they took control of education, saw value not in ‘enlightening’ common folk but in building good workers, and so early education focused around the value of hard work and honest labour rather than teaching the spirit of questioning and inquisition we take for granted today. We see this manipulation of education far too often, even today – who has not heard the threat educational brainwashing poses, or shook their head upon hearing the things the Taliban taught to children? Education, on its, own, is a way to teach people ideas – nothing more, nothing less.

So understanding that education simply serves as a means to further an agenda, we have to ask the question: what should that agenda be? This question lies at the heart of education, and, we can suppose, the heart of a democracy. A system that declares itself built on equality can scarcely be legitimate without it, so education must somehow serve to truly be that ‘grand equalizer’ we make it out be. So, then…how?

We must refine the aims of education. There are two competing views on this: that education should teach people life skills and the information necessary to be successful in the modern economy, and that education should teach the more amorphous ‘liberal arts’ – the arts of questioning, wondering, and thinking for oneself. If the goal of education is to achieve equality, we must educate in the way that leads to the most potential for equality – but in which direction that leads, there is no consensus.

Just like you, we’re still learning. We don’t have all the answers. If we wish to have a democracy, and all the trappings we associate with it(prosperity, freedom, equality), education is necessary for the preservation of civilization and for the relatively equal footing it provides. But more than that is a mystery. And so we turn the question over to you, dear reader. For the society we believe in, we need a strong foundation – but the question is, what do we want that foundation to look like?






4 thoughts on “Educational Imperatives

  1. The problem with “educational reform” as we know it in the English-Speaking World (US, UK, Canada, Australia) is that the proponents use “democracy” in their rhetoric but are committed to the Benjamin Disraeli/Henry Barnard/Andrew Carnegie capitalist imperative in their work.

    As you say, the first question for education is purpose – http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2013/01/christmas-zombies-common-core.html – is actual democracy, global democracy, the goal, or is imperialism, cultural and economic, the goal – http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2011/07/pygmalion.html

    If democracy is the goal, we must begin by liberating voice – http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-non-anglo-american-reading-and.html – allowing cultures to exist and to challenge the power structure.

    – Ira Socol

    Posted by Ira Socol | January 18, 2013, 4:02 pm
    • Hi Ira,

      I think, in one sense, you’re highlighting the fact that democracy is a ‘sliding signifier’. That is, ‘democracy’ isn’t some essential truth to be found or realized but an /appeal/ to power. Sometimes that appeal is linked with the commons. Often times that appeal is linked with private good and the commodification of the commons. I think the notions of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ liberty help analyze at this level. In brief, positive liberty can be understood as the freedom /to/ do X, Y, or Z; and negative liberty can be understood as freedom /from/. Here’s a write-up on positive and negative liberty that may (or may not) be helpful => http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberty-positive-negative/

      I have to acknowledge that the idea of “allowing cultures to exist and to challenge the power structure” sounds quite appealing … and quite subversive. By virtue of design, I expect schooling to be a somewhat conservative organism. One question, for me, lies in what kinds of values and futures are schools functionally conserving?

      Beyond these points, I think it helpful to conceptualize these ‘states’ as ‘processes’. For instance, do schools serve ‘democracy’ or ‘democratization’? Do schools mediate ‘inequalities’ or structurally insure ‘equalization’? By the same token, I think it’s helpful to think of ‘neoliberalism’ as a process of ‘neoliberalization’. Some folks seem more willing to engage at that level than at the level of ideology.

      Again, cheers for the provocations, Liam!


      Posted by Tobey Steeves (@symphily) | January 20, 2013, 2:01 am
  2. “There are two competing views on this: that education should teach people life skills and the information necessary to be successful in the modern economy, and that education should teach the more amorphous ‘liberal arts’ – the arts of questioning, wondering, and thinking for oneself.”

    I will take the question you posed in this post to let my dream education flow. I would love to see a public school system that makes Planning 10 a worthwhile course, actually preparing students for dealing with their future; promotes questioning while still reinforcing the foundation of factual information; and includes a wing for natural endeavours, whether they be agriculture, gardening, or outdoor recreation. That might be a lot to take on, but such changes would greatly benefit new generations.

    And of course, there should be greater importance place on social and environmental issues and innovations.

    Posted by Jennifer | January 19, 2013, 3:13 am
  3. Hi Liam,

    You ask some very big questions in this post. From my vantage as a teacher, it’s very inspiring to see this level of reflection and analysis as byproducts of your class.

    On my reading, one of the key points in the post is the realization that an important facet of public schooling is social engineering – building particular futures. As was mentioned in the post, the “elitist ideas of the Enlightenment” were primary drivers of expanding public schooling to include the ‘unwashed masses’. I’m currently working on a research project that examines Jeremy Bentham’s role in this history.

    As you may (or may not) be aware, Bentham helped inspire utilitarianism – and he’s somewhat infamous for inventing the ‘panopticon’. In brief, the panopticon was a model prison which attempted to create ‘self-disciplining prisoners’ by keeping them under constant fear of surveillance. Bentham’s ideas for public schooling – which he called the ‘Chrestomathia’ – anchored this idea of self-disciplining subjects within the classroom. In his view, it was better for the ‘middling classes’ to be ‘happy machines’ than students of art, culture, or philosophy.

    Bentham’s ideas have become more or less ‘common sense’ today. Without realizing it, educationists around the world are reproducing ideas of schooling and learning that are grounded in theories of controlling prisoners with maximum economy.

    Another key angle here is the influence of Prussian militarism. For more on this, maybe see John Taylor Gatto => http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/chapters/7c.htm

    Insofar as “what foundation would we like” to anchor our public schooling to, that all depends on who you ask. Nowadays it’s not uncommon for policymakers and parents to understand the ‘foundation’ of public schooling in relation to ‘can it get me a job?’ In other words, it is often the case that the ‘value’ of public education is (mis)understood in (more or less) purely economic terms. A consequence of this emphasis on economism is that the relationships that make public schooling – and learning – meaningful are functionally elided and devalued. From here we’re squarely in the realm of ‘neoliberalism’ => http://folk.uio.no/daget/What%20is%20Neo-Liberalism%20FINAL.pdf

    Otherwise, if we’re talking about anchoring our approach to public schooling as a matter of radical utopianism, a foundation in our project of democratization, then we might talk of nomads and war machines, (de/re)territorializations and (de/re)colonizations, new tactics of power. An example of this in BC is the Great Schools BC project => http://greatschoolsbc.wordpress.com/

    A larger example of this is the Rouge Forum => http://www.rougeforum.org/

    Thank you, Liam, for all the provocations.


    Posted by Tobey Steeves (@symphily) | January 20, 2013, 1:42 am

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